Sharapova finds top form

MARIA SHARAPOVA set up an eye-catching Wimbledon semi-final against wild card Sabine Lisicki and admitted it felt great to be in contention again.

Russian Sharapova explained how the path to her first semi-final since 2006 at the All England Club has been hampered by setbacks. The 2004 champion lost form and fitness following a flurry of success early in her career and is only operating at full throttle once again thanks to shoulder surgery.

A last-four appearance in the recent French Open suggested the 24-year-old was back on track and she confirmed that by hammering Dominika Cibulkova 6-1 6-1 in 59 minutes yesterday. Sharapova tackles Lisicki in the last four tomorrow.

“I would have loved for it not to have taken this long but I’m not complaining,” Sharapova said, reflecting on her barren Wimbledon run.

“It’s the road that you take. It’s not always straight. There are a lot of zigzags. A lot of the time you feel like it’s a dead end.

“I’ve worked really hard to get to this stage, but I’m not saying this is where I want to end. I want to keep going.”

Sharapova’s win was built on six successive breaks of serve, with Cibulkova, Caroline Wozniacki’s conqueror, unable to replicate her performance of Monday.

“I played well against someone that I lost to little over a month ago on clay in two sets, so I knew that she was capable of playing good tennis,” Sharapova said.

“I played really solid and did the right things to win.”

Lisicki became the first German woman since seven-time champion Steffi Graf 12 years ago to reach the semi-finals after downing Marion Bartoli 6-4 6-7 (4/7) 6-1.

The 21-year-old did it the hard way, blowing three match points and going on to lose the second set before recovering impressively to triumph against a player who ran out of energy.

This time last year Lisicki was on crutches with an ankle injury that kept her out for five months. She would have had to go through qualifying for Wimbledon had she not won the warm-up tournament in Birmingham and consequently been awarded her wild card.

“It just feels amazing to be in the semi-finals, especially after all I went through,” said Lisicki.

Petra Kvitova reached the semi-finals for a second successive year after dispatching Tsvetana Pironkova 6-3 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.

Their Court One showdown was delayed by three-and-a-half hours because of rain and Kvitova was in no mood to waste any further time as she started like a freight train.

But she fell apart in the second set and fared little better in the tie break against the tenacious and athletic 32nd seed from Bulgaria, who snapped at her heels throughout.

Pironkova looked so impressive in ousting Venus Williams on Monday and showed flashes of that form before being outclassed in the deciding set.

In last night’s late quarter-final, fourth seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus beat Austria’s Tamira Paszek 6-3 6-1 on a match moved to Centre Court from Court One.

Rain meant the quarter-final clash was moved to be played under Centre Court’s roof after just one game had been completed on Court One.

The lengthy delay did not put off the 21-year-old fourth seed though, as the highest-ranked player left in the draw delivered a brutal display.

Azarenka had fallen at the quarter-final hurdle in grand slams on four occasions but she outclassed world number 80 Paszek to secure a 6-3 6-1 victory in an hour and 24 minutes on court to set up a last-four clash on Thursday with Czech Petra Kvitova.

“I’m really happy with the win,” Azarenka said. “I knew when we went back to the locker rooms they said they were going to have a meeting to decide where we were going to play.

“I’m glad we managed to play and thank God for the roof. It is just amazing.

“I stayed really focused and composed through the whole match.

“She was playing well and I was just better at the important moments.”

Meanwhile Rafael Nadal last night insisted he is fit and ready to resume his Wimbledon title defence in today’s quarter-final against Mardy Fish.

Nadal feared his campaign at the All England Club had come to an end last night when he suffered a foot injury near the beginning of his fourth-round victory over Juan Martin Del Potro.

“My foot is okay,” said Nadal, who will wear taping on the injury.

Roger Federer faces the dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today while Andy Murray takes on Spain’s Feliciano Lopez. Novak Djokovic will play his teenage practice partner, Bernard Tomic.

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